Monday, January 5, 2009: 8:50 AM
Petit Trianon (Hilton New York)
Chicago, the black author Leon Forrest noted, was a “hustler's town . . . The word was if you couldn't make it in Chicago you couldn't make it anywhere.” The migration of African Americans to northern cities in the first half of the twentieth century opened up new vistas of opportunity but also presented many of the same racial restrictions faced in the South. While blacks confronted hurdles to advancement, for many the desire to “get ahead” rarely wavered. Faced with racism that prevented entry into many mainstream businesses, blacks invented alternate routes to advancement to circumvent these limits. Efforts to “move on up” led to involvement in the shadowy worlds of gambling, real estate speculation, and storefront preaching, revealing black aspirations for individual success through the reinvention of notions of “respectability” within the community. Although many of these occupations were considered dubious or outright illegal when compared to conventional methods of American success, in the black community they were regularly afforded degrees of legitimacy because of the common understandings of racism, discrimination and an admiration for the hustler ethic. These pursuits, in short, were entrepreneurial white-collar positions that afforded degrees of dignity and mobility for enterprising African Americans. My paper addresses these alternative routes to success through entrepreneurship in economically marginalized communities. It also expands scholars' conceptions of the connections between business history and cultural history by highlighting an oft-obscured white-collar class in Chicago's Black Belt. By utilizing a variety of primary sources, including the Works Progress Administration “Negro In Illinois” papers, Ernest Burgess papers, and Chicago Defender newspaper, I examine how the informal economy in Chicago provided strivers with outlets for their creative energies when so many formal channels were closed to them.